Android News

The Possibilities of Near Field Communications

November 19, 2010 | by Michael Heller

Android News

Near Field Communications
At the Web 2.0 Summit, Eric Schmidt announced that Gingerbread would include support for Near Field Communications (NFC), which he said could be used for various types of location services, and even eventually replace credit cards. Unfortunately, it seems many people in the media only heard that second point, and ignored the wealth of possibilities inherent in NFC devices. Yes, NFCs can be used as replacements for credit cards or bank cards, and major cell carriers are already pushing that with Isis, but they can also have many other uses that ease your day-to-day hassles or add value to simple interactions. We already use NFC devices regularly with tap-and-go subway passes and ID security cards. I lived in Japan for two years, and I’ve seen first hand some of the smaller uses, which many people over look, but could eventually mean that the only thing in your pocket could be your phone.

An NFC is a chip which can be made as either write only or read/write, and used for simple tap interactions. The write only standard is what would be used for authentication and payment systems, whereas the read/write standard could lead to some very interesting interaction systems. Having a simple chip replace your credit cards will undoubtedly cause security concerns for many, because if your phone is stolen, your credit card goes along with it. But, what if every other card in your wallet were replaced first? That chip could just as easily become a universal replacement for your store membership cards, library card, parking pass or subway pass. There is far less risk connected to losing one of those, but shifting that information to an NFC device could add quite a bit of value and alleviate some clutter in your daily life. An NFC could also be a pass-through for mobile transactions. Imagine you use your phone to buy a movie ticket, or to buy an item for pickup in a store, and once you arrive at said store or theater, you simply swipe your phone, get your item and that’s that. Your credit card info doesn’t need to be stored in the NFC, just the digital transaction receipt.

Some of you may have already heard of services like Bling Nation, which touts itself as a way to get discounts just by having a sticker on your phone. Of course, that sticker is an NFC. The location services offered by NFCs could be very interesting interactions, but I’m afraid that the majority of interactions that will be made available would be in the name of marketing, as with Bling Nation. It is possible for a restaurant to put up an NFC tag which would allow customers to quickly and easily find out the wait time for a table. More likely, though, would be a tag that sent customers to favorable news stories or to Yelp to read or leave comments and ratings. Many of this year’s NFC Forum finalists are projects to offer digital coupons through NFC or “enhanced posters” with NFCs linking to videos and other marketing materials.

Location and Marketing

Another interesting use for NFCs could come in the tourism market and in more useful examples of Augmented Reality (AR). Until now, AR apps like Layar have used flashy interfaces which overlay information on maps or live images from your device’s camera. These UIs look fun, and are a good way to show off the power of your new phone, but ultimately, they are somewhat clumsy and, while they can lead to useful information, they can often lack a certain interactivity with your surroundings. I live in Boston, and every day I pass by buildings that played an important part in American history, and many different historical walking trails. If I had the time and organizational skills, I could find tours of these landmarks and learn from the amusingly costumed tour guides. Or, with NFCs placed at key points, I could have a guided tour through my phone, on my schedule, and with a multimedia experience. Similar setups could also be used to bring museum exhibits to a modern audience.

Moving up a little on the privacy/security concern scale, an NFC could also be used as a connection to your personal health history. This could include private information, but imagine being able to swipe your phone at a hospital rather and have your history instantaneously there. Or, in an emergency, having that information available to an EMT because they were able to swipe your phone. It could be the new Life Alert bracelet!

Mobile payment systems will undoubtedly be huge, and are already the predominant usage of NFC chips. Even three years ago in Japan, there were NFC payment systems installed in fast-food restaurants, taxis, and most of the ubiquitous vending machines in the country, but except for uses as a subway pass, the technology hasn’t moved past that original use in Japan. And, as with most emerging technologies, the most interesting uses are not always the most popular or the first; and, the interesting uses for NFC are plentiful.